O’Dell lets faith shine, on and off air
But occasionally, his mother, Dotty, now 81 and the secretary at the Moline, Ill., church, felt the need to thump him.
“Now, I make a pretty good living doing what she thumped me on the ear for — talking too much,” jokes O’Dell, 53, laughing as he leans back in his swivel chair at news/talk station WGN-AM 720, where he is the top-rated radio personality in Chicago.
O’Dell’s late father, Merle, a small-town police chief recalled by his son as “the last Andy Griffith type,” never stepped foot in a church. But Dotty, converted just before Spike’s birth, made sure the rest of the family never missed — Sunday morning, Sunday night or Wednesday night.
Those early years in the pews formed the blueprint for who O’Dell is today: A Christian unafraid to share his faith with the estimated 1.2 million listeners who tune in to his morning radio show.
“The way he’s let his Christianity come out on a secular radio station is quite unique and inspiring,” said Rich Little, minister of the Naperville church, where O’Dell and his wife, Karen, are members.
WHEN FRIENDS FALL IN LOVE
Karen Alley met her future husband at a Safeway grocery store 35 years ago, as both prepared to begin studies at York College in Nebraska.
“You guys look like green freshmen,” Karen said to Spike and a friend filling their cart with “all sorts of junk food.”
Only later did Spike figure out that this girl who seemed to know everything about York was a freshman, too. But she had inside knowledge: Her father, the late Joe Alley, chaired the Bible department.
Spike and Karen became best friends, then fell in love. After two years at York, both enrolled at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., where Spike was quickly told his transferring grades weren’t good enough to get into the radio department.
Spike, who “majored in goofing off more than I should have,” recalls telling the registrar: “I came all the way down here and saved all this money to come to college, and now you’re telling me I can’t do what I came here to do?”
When the registrar shook his head affirmatively, Spike responded, “Well, give me the money back. I’m going home.”
“Um, wait a minute,” the registrar replied, deciding to let Spike work on KHCA, a carrier-current station that broadcast an AM radio signal through the campus electrical system.
Spike had landed his first radio job.
But after a semester at Harding, he was out of money and not real excited about taking history and science. So, he left Harding and returned home, and Karen followed him. They married in July 1974 and later welcomed their two children: Michael, 28, and Caroline, 22.
Back home, Spike worked as a guard at an International Harvester plant and made decent money. But the job, which Spike joked that a monkey could do, lacked the fulfillment he desired.
When he saw an advertisement for a course that promised to teach him how to be a disc jockey in six weeks, he enrolled. But no one wanted to hire someone with so little experience.
His big break came when the Saturday morning DJ at WEMO in Spike’s hometown couldn’t show up. Looking for somebody with a pulse, the station called Spike at 7 a.m., and he was on the air by 8:30, working until 2:30 p.m. before heading to International Harvester at 3.
Before long, his seven-year stint as a security guard ended, and he worked at a variety of FM stations from Davenport, Iowa, to Charlotte, N.C. WGN called and offered him a job in 1987 after the rock ’n’ roll DJ won a national Radio Personality of the Year Award from Billboard magazine.
The O’Dells placed membership at Naperville soon after WGN hired Spike. Leaders at the church laugh because they can’t get Spike to stand up in front of the congregation and read a Scripture. For all his on-air gregariousness, Spike doesn’t like being the center of attention.
“I’m kind of weird that way,” he said. “I just freeze up when people look at me. I can sit here and talk to this tin can all day knowing there’s over a million people listening to me. That doesn’t bother me because they’re not looking at me.”
Occasionally, Spike will lead a public prayer. “He can pray because everybody’s got their heads down and eyes closed,” Karen said. As for what makes her husband such a hit on the radio, his wife said: “He’s just the boy next door. … When people meet him, they just say, ‘You’re so easy to talk to.’”
For Spike’s part, he said he loves coming to work every day because he feels like he makes a difference.
“For me, coming on the air today, if I told you to take an umbrella and it rained, I did my job,” he said. “To tens of thousands of listeners, I’m the first voice they hear in the morning. And they know by the sound of my voice whether the world blew up last night or it didn’t.”
NOT A PREACHER
Spike doesn’t preach on the air (“If you preach, you won’t be working here,” he said), but he’s not shy about sharing his Christian perspective with callers.
“I tell you, The Passion of the Christ was a great opportunity to come on the air as a Christian on a commercial, 50,000-watt radio station and let it all out, because everybody was talking about it,” he said of the publicity surrounding the 2004 Mel Gibson film. “If I were to do it today, they might accuse me of preaching.”
Spike said he is blessed with the freedom at WGN to be who he is. At WGN and previous stations, he has refused to do ads for beer companies or women-drink-free nights at bars. In some cases, he jokes, doing those ads could have made him enough money “to put somebody through college.”
When the O’Dells’ home burned down last summer while the couple was on an Alaskan cruise, Spike’s colleagues repeatedly referenced his faith on the air.
“I thought that was the greatest testament that Spike could have ever had,” said Steve Shaner, a Naperville member. “Every show … talked about his faith carrying him through such a calamity.”
Another colleague mentioned at a public event attended by about 3,000 people that she had never heard Spike utter a foul word in nearly 20 years of working with him.
“I hope to be the same person on the air as off,” Spike said. “In this day and age, with as worldly as the entertainment and media business is, it’s tough to make a go of it. But I think I’m a living example of the fact that you can do this and not be a prude, if you will, and still be a Christian and have people know it.”
LISTEN TO SPIKE O’DELL and read more about his early years at http://wgnradio.com/spike/index.htm.
August 1, 2006